I have wanted to be a writer since I was a little girl, but I didn’t really do anything about it until I reached my early 30s and decided that if I was ever going to get published, then I needed to take it seriously.
In 2014, I booked on to the Festival of Writing and entered all the competitions with my first novel. I was incredibly lucky and was shortlisted for Friday Night Live. At this point, I had no idea how big or influential the festival was. I thought I was going to be reading to 20 people in the back room of a pub. That was terrifying enough. I had never read my work out loud before.
I arrived to find a huge room, a stage, a microphone and an audience of around 200 writers and literary agents. Cue major stage fright and the conviction that I was going to vomit in front of everyone. I eyed up the exit and considered making a run for it. Fortunately, the other writers were equally nervous, incredibly supportive and I got through OK. People even laughed (which was good – it was a comedy). Joanna Cannon won that year and became a major literary superstar. I had two brilliant one-to-ones. I had requests for full manuscripts. I thought ‘this is easy’. I was so wrong!
That book did OK. For a first attempt, I’m surprised that I did get full manuscript requests and helpful feedback but ultimately no agent. Fair enough, I thought, I’ll try again.
I switched to crime. I read a lot of crime. I know and love the genre. My favourite books are psychological thrillers and I felt that was the right fit for me. I wrote another book. This time, I knew a bit more about story structure (thanks to Julie Cohen); psychic distance (thanks to Debi Alper) and the four-act structure (thanks to Allie Spencer). Harry Bingham had taught me to challenge my prose and to really care about its quality. I realised I needed to include some setting (which was conspicuously absent in my first book).
I went to the next Festival of Writing feeling confident with my first chapter and my synopsis fresh off the printer. In retrospect, I should have waited. It bombed. The feedback from my one-to-ones was completely true, but hard to swallow. There were tears.
I got onto the Curtis Brown Creative novel course, which was fantastic, and I learned to accept, welcome and value criticism. I met my amazing critique partner, Phil, and I revised the novel. I went to the Festival of Writing again and the feedback was more positive but still generally ‘meh’. To be honest, I was feeling the same way about book two myself.
I gave up on trying to win over the industry. It just wasn’t going to happen. I licked my wounds a little and then decided to write something just for fun. If it didn’t get published, so what? I was just going to write something that I loved and if no-one liked it, then at least I would be proud of it. I wrote my third novel free from expectation but there was something deep inside me whispering ‘this is the one’.
I started looking at digital-first publishers who would read manuscripts without an agent and had a faster track to publication. When I got the email from Killer Reads, a digital imprint of HarperCollins, I automatically thought it was another ‘thanks, but no thanks’. I had to read it several times to convince myself that it was a ‘yes’. I had a book deal. I stared at it for a long time, wondering if they had made a big mistake, sent it to the wrong person, but no, it definitely had my name on it. (NB Killer Reads has now amalgamated into One More Chapter).
By the time The Beach is published in February 2020, it will have taken the best part of a decade to get a publishing deal. And I still haven’t managed to secure an agent!